I’ve been reading Behind the Burly Q: The Story of Burlesque in America by Leslie Zemeckis, who also directed the hit documentary film of the same title. It’s an oral history of American Burlesque “as told by the performers who lived it,” including interviews with such legendary names as Kitty West, Tempest Storm, Betty Rowland, Tee Tee Red, Dardy Minsky and the “Babe Ruth of Burlesque” herself, Baltimore’s legendary Two O’Clock Club headliner (and later owner) Blaze Starr. (FYI: Blaze also wrote the forward to Zemeckis’ book.)
Though the flaming redhead from West Virginia born Fannie Belle Fleming in 1932 is perhaps best known for her torrid love affair with former Louisiana Governor Earl Long (played by Paul Newman in Blaze, the 1989 Hollywood adaptation of her 1974 autobiography) – and to film “buffs” for her 1962 Doris Wishman cult nudist colony movie Blaze Starr Goes Nudist – in her early days she was better known for outlandish gimmicks that often landed her stage act in trouble with the law (or Fire Marshall). While I had heard tales about her “smouldering bed” routine – a divan that would start to smoke and seemingly set itself on fire as Blaze did her sexy bump-and-grind-in-recline (see video clip of this routine at the end of this post) – I never knew until now about her wild animal acts. All I can say is, it’s a good thing PETA (not to mention the Black Panther Party) wasn’t around then – somehow, I feel they’d object to a routine that once involved tying pieces of steak to her bra and panties and having a panther chew her clothing off as she lay supine!
In Zemeckis’ chapter entitled “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” she writes:
Starting out, Blaze Starr admitted, “I first saw Gypsy [Rose Lee] and I thought, Well you gotta have a gimmick, something people remember ya by. Everything had been used.
She thought “animals.” She got an ocelot and dyed it black. “I didn’t have any sense enough to know; it got sick and died. It wasn’t big enough.”
So next she bought a Samoa leopard. “Got it through an animal company in New York who found it from a zoo…[Again] i didn’t have sense. You can’t ever train a cat, couldn’t travel with them. I wasn’t scared of them. They were babies. It swallowed a rubber ball and died. Then I got a puma, a mountain lion they’re called. Big and dangerous. Had it declawed. Died during surgery.”
Her bad luck with cats continued, but she hadn’t given up yet. “I paid $1,100 for a baby black panther. I’d get it raw steak, just warmed.”
Blaze and her panther were in a hotel in New York and Blaze went out shopping, leaving the panther inside – something she was used to doing. Although she’d leave it in the cage when the maid came, “[The maid] didn’t come in and clean. She’d give me the clean sheets.” While Blaze was shopping, “it got in the shower, turned on the hot water. I come back, the cops and firemen are there. It had flooded a wing of the hotel. No one could go in the room, it was screaming. Weighed one hundred pounds.” Blaze went in the room. “It jumped on my back and laid its head on my shoulder, and scratched my brow. I thought it was going for my jugular vein. I knew then. This…is scary. I sold it back for five hundred dollars.”
Watch a clip from Doris Wishman’s Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962).
Watch Blaze Starr’s “Smouldering Bed” routine.
Watch Blaze Starr talk about the book Behind the Burly Q.
Related Blaze Starr Links:
Blaze Starr Painted Screens by Jenny Campbell (Baltimore Or Less)
Blaze Starr recalls burlesque era in new film (Baltimore Or Less)
Behind the Burly Q trailer (YouTube)
Blaze Starr Goes Nudist clip (YouTube)